Code Word Reform: Taking another look at the Actors’ Equity Showcase Code

There’s a movement afoot.  Once considered the “fringe”—home to the mysterious fire-breathing (sometimes literally) monsters at the edge of New York’s theatrical map—Off Off Broadway has been gaining steady recognition as the new foundation for the most innovative and risk-taking theatrical work in the city.  It is the place where artists can still afford to experiment, and indeed they are—pushing new forms, creating new languages and building an artistic community that is growing together and shaping all the artists involved.  Even the New York Times is starting to get it—in their recent TONY Theater issue, Jason Zinoman, citing the work of small theater companies like SoHo Rep and New Georges, confessed that: in the “wilds of Off Off Broadway, I’ve discovered something much more shocking: hope for the American play.”

Besides being theatrical risk-takers, these OOBWY shows are united by another more pragmatic element: the vast majority is being produced under production guidelines set by the Actors’ Equity Showcase Code. 

Over the past year, the Alliance of Resident Theaters (A.R.T./NY), the well-established service organization for the NY theater community, has been busy investigating the code and its impact on OOBWY, in preparation to attempt a conversation with Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) about reforming the Showcase Code.  ART/NY wants to see the code updated in a way that reflects the current realities of the production landscape and the role these productions play in actors’ careers.  Actors’ Equity is particularly focused on Off Broadway and Broadway productions in NYC; the organization still views OOBWY as the exception to an actor’s regular work, and the code is not an actual “contract,” so AEA has been hesitant to enter this conversation or to see the need for showcase reform. 

“The context of the world in which OOBWY is happening has changed since the 1970s,” explains Susan Bernfield, the ART/NY Board and Task Force Member who has been at the forefront of this reform initiative.  Of the artists involved in these productions, she says: “This isn’t just a showcase—this is their work.”

Created in the 1970s, “the code” allows Equity actors to “forego regular contractual prerogatives” (including standard salaries) “in exchange for appearing” in a smaller, lower budget “showcase” production.  The idea is that the productions will “showcase” the actors’ talents, providing them exposure to casting directors, agents, and producers who might them give them the opportunity to take the next step, in a “regular contractual” gig.  In not having to pay the full artistic fees that Off Broadway houses pay, more producers have been able to create more shows and take more risks. 

The code also sets out strict production guidelines defining the maximum cost that can be spent on a showcase production ($20,000), the size of the theater (99 seats), the number of maximum performances (16 or 24 performances, depending on the contract, over four or five consecutive weeks), the number of rehearsal hours (six times a week over four consecutive weeks), and the number of times a project can be produced as a code show per year (once). 

But NYC has gone through some pretty extensive changes since the 1970s, the context in which the code was first crafted.  The rising price of real estate, the octopus that reaches its tentacles around all New Yorkers’ necks in one way or another, has raised the price of producing theater at all levels.  It has herded actors into steady “survival” jobs, limited their availability for rehearsals, and demanded a more creative approach to rehearsal schedules and longer play development—conditions for which the present code doesn’t provide much leeway.

The rising costs have also made more traditional venues and institutions more risk-averse about what they produce, and with rising ticket prices, their patrons are less willing to take chances, too.  As a result, shows once opening on Broadway now open Off Broadway.  And shows that once opened Off Broadway… are being presented to the world of OOBWY under the showcase code.  As a result, OOBWY is not just a stepping-stone for further exposure—it is a production’s destination.

Over the past year, Bernfield and ART/NY have done some exciting work polling the OOBWY theater community.  They have consulted with independent producers, actors, and artists who are affected by the code, asking them how it helps, how it hinders, and what changes to the code could be made that stay true to the spirit, yet reflect the deeper changes that have occurred in the theatrical (and NYC) landscape since the code was first formulated.

All this has been channeled into a “discussion paper” to present to AEA, laying out the changes in the production environment since the 1970s, and proposing changes which will help producers to create better productions with more reach to showcase the talent of everyone involved—actors, writers, designers, directors, and the production itself.  It is ART/NY’s position that a successful production serves everyone better.  And, as it has in the past, this will help showcase the talent of all involved and make the most of the production opportunity.

Anyone who has spent much time within the OOBWY community has heard considerable griping about the limitations of the code, and how it has begun to hinder, rather than support, the development of new work.  “We want to change the tone of the discussion,” says Bernfield, who says ART/NY’s intention is to “side-step the culture of complaint” and instead “articulate points of mutual benefit for actors and producers.” 

Among ART/NY’s findings are that optimal production costs far exceed the maximum allotted downtown theaters under the current code.  With costs ranging from $2,000 – 3,000 per week for theater rental over a four to five week period, a $20,000 showcase budget max doesn’t leave much room to fund marketing, the key element to surviving in the information overloaded landscape of NYC. You can also imagine what that cap leaves for paying artistic stipends—something which most theater would like to increase, of their own free will, but which the budget cap makes prohibitive.

Other challenges in the code include the severe limitations on a show’s run beyond the current 24-performance cap. For example, when a show is a critical and popular hit, and the producers would like to extend the run, it is now, under the code, very difficult to do so.  There have been several instances when shows have received rave reviews only to find themselves needing to close their doors to sold-out audiences, just when they were beginning to reach new audiences and gain broader exposure for the artists whose talents they are “showcasing.”

In this changing and financially restrictive landscape, producers have responded with creative gusto equal to, and as brave as, the talent they’re trying to showcase.  Bernfield, the Artistic Director of New Georges theater, which recently produced Jenny Schwartz’s well-received God’s Ear at Classic Stage Company, is herself a shining example of one of these dynamic, innovative downtown producers, personally and professionally involved in trying to find new ways to bring up an entire community and share its vision with a larger audience.  But to do so, and to serve their artists, these producers need the collaboration of the AEA whose responsibility is to serve its artist-members.  As ART/NY would have it, the end-goals are identical.  And a conversation is all that’s needed to start forging a stronger common ground.

On Sunday, July 8, from 6 to 8pm, there will be a community gathering to show support for Showcase Reform and the White Paper as a means of initiating a conversation with Actors’ Equity.  It will be held at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues).  It is important that anyone affected by and in support of Showcase Reform stop by the meeting and be counted, even if only for five minutes!  It’s also an opportunity for Actors’ Equity to see, embodied and dramatized in the flesh as only theater can do, that there is a legitimate OOBWY community that would like to be heard on this issue. 

If you can’t attend the event, you can visit www.nyc99.org to sign a very simple statement of support and keep up-to-date on AEA Showcase reform.

Contributor

Emily DeVoti

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